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Guest Viewpoints

The Life Cycle of Saint Nicholas in the Iconographic Program

March 24, 2021
By Bishop Joachim of Amissos

In a previous Newsletter (November 2020), the significance for having a pictorial Life Cycle (Vita Cycle) of Saint Nicholas in the Shrine of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero was explained: the Saints’ long history with the city of New York, having its origin in the period of the Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam; and in the centuries-long Byzantine/Orthodox Tradition in which Saint Nicholas is regarded as one of the most popular saints, venerated for his great intercessory powers. He is especially remembered as a holy figure who rescues individuals from dangers and as a great intercessor at tribunals for those who were wrongly condemned. In light of the latter role, he is regarded as a most powerful intercessor for the dead at the Last Judgment. For the Shrine of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero in Manhattan, there is the additional significance of the role of this Saint for the history of the city in general, and his role for the martyric site of this Shrine in particular.

The pictorial Life Cycle in the Shrine of Saint Nicholas will include 6 scenes, adapted from various well-known examples from the Byzantine/Orthodox visual tradition: the Birth of Saint Nicholas; the Ordination of Saint Nicholas to the Episcopacy; Saint Nicholas Miraculously Providing Dowries for Three Maidens; Saint Nicholas Rescuing a Drowning Man (Sea Miracle); Saint Nicholas Rescues Three Generals Wrongly Imprisoned; Saint Nicholas Rescues Three Innocent Men from Execution; and the Koimesis (Dormition-Falling Asleep) of Saint Nicholas. Most pictorial Life Cycles of saints begin with a Birth-Scene; that of his Ordination to the Episcopacy visually marks the beginning of the Saint’s public life as the beloved Hierarch and spiritual Shepherd of his flock. Our Cycle then includes four of the most well-known events of Saint Nicholas’ miraculous interventions and rescues on behalf of those who were placed under his spiritual care as well as for those who devoutly called upon his name for intercession. The Cycle concludes, as with other holy persons, with the scene of his Dormition (Koimesis or Falling Asleep) where the Saint is depicted on his funeral bier surrounded by the faithful, both clergy and laity, who gather to venerate his sacred body and who understand that Saint Nicholas will continue to intercede on their behalf.

The Saint’s great and powerful intercessory prayers have long been recognized by the Church. In the Orthodox world, he is esteemed as the most popular saint, after the Panagia. During the Byzantine period, a chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas was constructed and attached to the east end of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the most important church of Orthodox Christendom. This chapel was known as a place of asylum or refuge for the purpose of granting safety to those accused of various crimes, clearly attesting to the belief in Saint Nicholas’ assured intercession and intervention on their behalf.

Ground plan from E. Antoniades, Ekphrasis tes Hagias Sophias: etoi, Melete Synthetike kai Analytike hypo epopsin Architektoniken, Archaiologiken kai Historiken tou Polythryletou Temenous Konstantinoupoleos (Athens, 1907-1909)

As noted in a previous Newsletter, scholars have shown that sacred depictions from Saint Nicholas’ Life were painted as coherent cycles in numerous historic churches across the Byzantine/Orthodox commonwealth, often placed in spaces where intercessory prayers for the dead were conducted. The visual statement of the iconographic program of the Life Cycle in the Shrine at Ground Zero will serve as a potent reminder and symbol that this same Saint Nicholas is also a refuge and vindicator for those victims of 9/11, interceding for them, and for us as well, now, and at the time of the Last Judgment.

Note: Reprinted from the monthly update Newsletter of “The friends of St. Nicholas.

Bishop Joachim of Amissos is an internationally recognized expert in Byzantine Iconography and is the Director of the Archbishop Iakovos Library and Learning Center at Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

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